(trouble finding an English language move poster so here’s the French one for Arrietty, (c) Studio Ghibli)
It’s no secret to regular readers of the blog that I’m a huge lover of all forms of animation, so when I got the chance to see the new (well, to us, Japan had it last year!) Studio Ghibli offering, The Borrower Arrietty, at this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival (where I am currently enjoying my annual celluloid banquet), of course I had to go along. Unlike their previous film, Ponyo, which was deliberately aimed at a much younger audience (still enjoyable for those of us who have no problem communicating with our inner child though), The Borrower Arrietty, based on Mary Norton’s classic novel The Borrowers, is more suitable for an older audience; the very young will probably still enjoy some parts but it is aimed at older kids and, of course, us great big kids who simply never lost our love for this kind of work.
(Arrietty finally relents and reveals herself openly to Sho in his aunt’s garden, (c) Studio Ghibli)
As with Mary Norton’s book the story concerns the titular Borrowers, tiny little people barely a few inches tall, who have made a home for themselves hidden away inside the homes of full sized ‘human beans’. Their homes and clothes are a delightful and charming version of our own world in a perfectly realised miniature scale and evoke the same sense of pleasure and wonder as, say a beautifully set up and detailed doll house, model railway set or model village. In fact during the film a gorgeously detailed doll’s house come to the attention of young Sho, a boy facing an operation for a dangerous heart condition, who has been sent away from his busy mother to rest in the large, beautiful home of his great aunt Sadako, the home where his mother had grown up (and had told him tales of glimpses of little people who lived secretly in the house, ‘borrowing’ items from the larger humans to live). When he asks his aunt about the incredibly detailed doll’s house in his room she explained her grandfather had it made in England, that items like the kitchen oven actually worked, all made for these little people to use, but they never showed themselves to him or to her.
Indeed secrecy is a code for the Borrowers – when Arrietty is seen by Sho he tries to befriend her and help her and her mother and father. At first she tries to conceal herself from his approaches, but as she comes to realise he is only trying to help she relents and begins to talk to him, but explains the only way they can survive is to conceal themselves, always, from full sized humans and that now he has seen them he might inadvertently lead others to their home so they may have to face a dangerous journey to move somewhere else, news which upsets poor Sho who only wanted to help and protect Arrietty and do something noble before his operation, which he knows he may not survive. Arrietty’s fears seem to be confirmed when the housekeeper, who has long suspected the existence of the little people, starts spying on Sho, convinced that he has seen them and knows where they have concealed themselves; his attempts at friendship and help may well have placed the tiny Borrowers in dreadful peril.
(Arrietty on a borrowing expedition, climbing inside the walls of the ‘human bean’s’ home on a staircase of nals and tiny strings, (c) Studio Ghibli)
Okay, no more of the plot, because I don’t want to spoil it for you. But this is, even by Studio Ghibli standards, an absolute delight of a film, utterly charming and totally absorbing. Many of the usual Ghibli themes are present – youngsters with family problems having to realise that they must and can deal with problems using their own bravery and resources, touching young friendships and – a regular theme in Ghibli works – the environment and the fragility of species (never a bad theme to get over to younger audience members). As you would expect the animation is lovely and the painted backdrops exhibit the usual warm, wonderfully detailed art that is a hallmark of Ghibli, from the lush garden (a nice retreat for the ill Sho, a veritable jungle for Arrietty) and it is easy to lose yourself into this magical world.
The soundscape is equally detailed and very, very clever; for example scenes from Arrietty’s point of view have the everyday sounds of the world – the wind through grass, footsteps, the rustling of the fabric of Sho’s shirt – magnified considerably so we experience the aural world as her tiny, sensitive form would, as well as the more obvious visual. French musician Cécile Corbel, a new collaborator with Ghibli, must also receive praise for her lovely score. Having just recently re-read the immortal satirical fantasy Gulliver’s Travels for my SF Book Group I especially appreciated the level of detail and attention Ghibli put into making the audience comprehend how the differences in scale felt for the little people (something Swift does admirably well too with Gulliver, first as a giant among tiny people then as a tiny person among a race of giants). Tiny little details throughout compliment this – for instance raindrops on Arrietty’s dress or tea being poured from her mother’s wee kettle are little round beads, not flowing water, but beady droplets because this is as small as the water can be (think of the beads of water on a leaf when viewed close up, like clear pearls). The details of scale and the inventive uses the Borrowers make of items from the larger world (using sellotape on feet and hands to climb a table leg, for example) mean that, like a lot of Ghibli work, it will invite repeat viewings to admire all the craft and attention which went into not just the main story and characters (which is wonderful) but the backgrounds and the details of their little, miniature world.
It’s one of those films where I left the cinema with a huge smile on my face; this was directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi rather than the great Miyazaki himself, although Miyazaki wrote it, but it carries the Ghibli stamp that Miyazaki has so carefully crafted for his animation house over the years in style and themes, without ever feeling that it is recycling idea, it is still fresh, vibrant and engaging. It also does what some of the best animation does and what Studio Ghibli has done for me – and I suspect many of you – so many times, it makes you feel like a child once more in a garden of magical delights, and that’s a truly wonderful gift to give to an adult. It is as perfect for adults as it is for children, and if you are a parent then yes, you really must take your kids along to see this, you will probably find you love it as much as they do. And then you should take them to the local library and point them to Mary Norton’s fabulous novel which inspired it and send them on another wonderful journey.
The Borrower Arrietty was released last year in Japan; the UK will see a general release towards the end of July according to the IMDB, perfect for the school summer holidays (and making a welcome change, we often don’t get a new Ghibli until the autumn of the year after the Japanese release). I was pleased that the Film Festival screened the original language version with English subtitles – I suspect the general release may be the dubbed version as is common with previous Ghibli releases here and in the US market and although these are always done well with a fine voice cast I still prefer the original language version with subtitles – even when you don’t know the language, I prefer to have the cadences and tones of the original actors’ voice. In a summer of big, CGI-packed superhero movies or CG, 3D animations, here’s a charming, traditionally drawn animation for all the family to lose themselves in.